Robert Byrd and Me

This is a chapter in Damn Yankee Buttons, a book of short stories and essays that I am working on.



Robert Byrd and Me


The late United States Senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd, didn’t seem to seek personal wealth, but if he directed tax-payer money toward a particular project, they just might immortalize him by putting his name on it or his wife’s name.

If only he had had the grace of former Kansas Senator, Nancy Katzenbaum. When it was proposed that a stretch of highway in Kansas be named after her, she declined, saying that she didn’t want anything named after her, especially a stretch of pavement.

In Cuba, it is against the law to name anything after a living person. When I was there in 1969, there was nothing in Cuba named after Castro or any other living politician or person. West Virginia is perhaps not as enlightened as Cuba. Our brown-nosing grovelers fall all over themselves in eagerness to build graven images of Byrd.

The genuine good works that have been done in West Virginia, to preserve the environment and try to moderate the evils of the coal industry and over-development, have been accomplished in spite of Byrd.

Apologists for Byrd have portrayed him as having reformed since the days when he was the organizer for the Klan in southern West Virginia.

In 1944, Byrd wrote to segregationist, Mississippi Senator, Theodore Bilbo, “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side…Rather I should die a thousand times, and see “Old Glory” trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”

Byrd later wrote a letter to the Grand Wizard of the KKK saying, “The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation.”

During Byrd’s 1952 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Charleston Gazette exposed his Klan membership. Byrd said that he was no longer a member of the Klan and was not interested in it.

Many say he became a better man than when, as a Congressman, he made gratuitous racist entries into the Congressional Record. Byrd moved up to the U. S. Senate, where eventually the blatant racist power of the leadership gave way to more moderate influences.

When it was no longer expedient for Byrd to be a racist, he shifted gears, slid right into the twentieth century and hired an African-American staff member.

As a student at West Virginia University in 1956, I heard Byrd give a speech in Morgantown, at the First Baptist Church on High Street. Byrd, reminded his audience that he was a holy man—he pounded the Bible to illustrate that like an anvil, it had withstood the hammers of time.

After the speech, a man in the back of the chapel made a statement about the KKK. Byrd admitted he had been a member of the Klan and that the Charleston Gazette had exposed this and tried to ruin him with it. He went on to say that he was proud to have been a member of the Klan.

Byrd’s most memorable political action was to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. Riots followed. Senator Robert Byrd had this to say in the Washington Post:

 “Adult looters should be shot on the spot….It is later than we think. Hoodlums, losers, snipers should no longer be handled with kid gloves….Insurrection should be put down with brutal force….there is only one way to deal with rioters—swiftly and  mercilessly.”


I heard Byrd speaking on public radio—it was the twentieth century Byrd, not quite his twenty-first century stand against the Iraq War. It wasn’t the Byrd that the Charleston Gazette made fun of for wearing baggy suits in his early days at the state legislature.

Byrd was telling Congress of the need for straight roads in West Virginia. Byrd lamented the crooked roads that follow creek and river bottoms—he evidently didn’t see the value in them being picturesque or in going past locally owned businesses.

Byrd wanted our poor citizens to be able to travel on those four lanes that go straight through everything. Of course, he didn’t mention that the coal and timber trucks would have an easier time carrying the state away to our lords in other states. Neither did he mention that the sons and daughters of those lords in other states could more readily get to our few remaining natural wonders.

In his story The Bear, William Faulkner observed that the two-lane hardtop roads, being built into the Mississippi wilderness, would destroy what was worth seeing or feeling in the first place. It’s a distant cousin to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle—looking at something changes it.

During a speech, opening a portion of a boondoggle highway called Corridor H, Byrd swept his arm toward the mountains behind him and spoke of them in his grandiose style. He didn’t notice that he was drawing attention to a mountain that had been strip-mined.

Byrd was concerned about the average citizen and his struggle in getting to the mall. But, more than that, he was probably looking over his shoulder at campaign support from the highway construction companies and votes he would get for creating construction jobs. Senator Byrd, like William Faulkner’s Snopes family, moved right along into the twenty-first century.

In 1979, some of us Lincoln County residents organized Pennzoil Natural Gas customers against the rate increases that the Public Service Commission kept handing out. We went to the state capitol to lobby and raise hell. I was having lunch, in the Capitol basement cafeteria, with people from the upper Kanawha Valley.

Senator Byrd walked in with his obsequious and sycophantic entourage. He seemed to suddenly remember that it was an election year and started, in his awkward manner, going from table to table, shaking hands.

Byrd walked toward our table. I had never admired him. I wondered what I was going to do when he reached out to shake my hand. When he came to me, as we shook hands, I said quietly, “I have never had much respect for you.”

Byrd looked as if he had been shot. He backed away from our table without shaking anyone else’s hand. He pointed at me and started stammering, “I know your type. I’ve met your type before.”

It was scary to think that a man, who at that time was the U. S. Senate majority leader, couldn’t handle that situation better. He had enough power to help start a nuclear war but he couldn’t deal with a long-haired, bearded man, in his own home state Capitol.

Harry Heflin became the acting president of West Virginia University after the very capable Paul Miller resigned. Heflin and his Chamber of Commerce kin of Morgantown were taking Byrd around to view all the things he had made possible with his skill at the pork barrel. At every stop, the Students for a Demoratic Society (SDS) and I greeted the group with signs objecting to giving a Klan organizer the University’s highest honor.

When acting president Heflin saw me, he looked like he might get sick. I was obviously out of control. He would cure that.

Former West Virginia University (WVU) President Paul Miller, who by then was an assistant Secretary of Education in Washington, D.C., was sent to represent the federal government at the graduation ceremony where Byrd was given the honorary doctorate.

Miller had signed off on hiring me at WVU and more than once encouraged me to be bold. In a chance meeting in downtown Morgantown he shook my hand and said, “I like young Turks.”

Miller’s new wife and her children walked with him toward the graduation ceremony. He saw me in the picket line against Byrd and stopped. He shook my hand, and introduced his new family.

The Associated Press photographer took a picture of him shaking my hand, with that picket sign in my other hand. Several years later, Kitty Melville, who had been a reporter for the Daily Athenaeum student newspaper, told me that the AP people were told that if they used that picture, they would never get another story from the University.

Inside the graduation ceremony, the graduating social work students stood and turned their backs on Byrd as he was being honored by Heflin.

One week later, I was invited to a meeting with the university financial people. They wanted to know, since it wasn’t supporting itself, why they shouldn’t close International House. I pointed out that hardly anything at WVU was self-supporting—that didn’t cause them to look up from their figures. Going by their standards, only the football and basketball teams would be left. They had orders and just needed to go through the motions.

David Hess, director of Student Educational Services and my boss, refused Heflin’s request that he fire me. Heflin closed International House and banished me, with no annual pay raise and a feeling I would never get one, to a windowless balcony in the old Mountainlair. That decaying building was a large Navy-surplus dining hall in the hollow behind the wonderful old Mountaineer Field.

“They” didn’t learn with Governors and convicted felons Arch Moore[1] and Wally Barron[2] that it is better to wait and see which prison the guy goes to before building statues and naming streets, courthouses and schools after him.

You have got to love that bust of Moore in the Cultural Center. He sure thought the place was his. The first event that took place in “Archie’s Bunker”, was closed to the peasants. He shut it down like an Argentine dictator and held his daughter’s wedding. It was by invitation only. The public was shut out.


In the spring of 1954 the front page of the Charleston Gazette announced the Supreme Court decision that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional and would be integrated. My reaction was “It will never work here.”

As a senior at St. Albans High School I had attended segregated schools all my life. The kids who lived two blocks away were bused 12 miles to Garnet High School in Charleston and I knew it was because they were “Colored.”

I don’t know what made me think integration wouldn’t work here. For me St. Albans was a safe and happy place. We lived at the end of C Street, I knew some of the “Colored” boys who lived two blocks away on A Street. In the Summer we played baseball and sometimes in the evenings we sat together on the outfield fence of what I remember as a wonderful old ballpark, with a roofed grandstand behind the catcher, to watch white men play in their softball league. We even discussed racism but not school integration.

A few times, I crawled through the fence that was up against the back of the grandstand and into the grandstand to watch the games. Of course my “Colored” friends couldn’t do that because they weren’t allowed inside the ballpark.

In 1954, at the Christmas break of my freshman year at WVU, I attended a YMCA-YWCA national convention at the University of Kansas.

I was getting settled in my assigned living quarters in the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house, when a student from Kansas State University extended his hand and said “I’m Arch Rich.” I don’t know if my hesitation was noticeable but for the first time in my life, I shook hands with an African-American. Arch Rich and I became buddies and hung out together for the rest of the conference.

Since then I have worked on ridding myself of racial prejudice. It is not easy, and maybe not possible, to recover from the subtle and not so subtle racist messages our society sends.

Lawrence, Kansas, home of Kansas University (KU), was a segregated town at the time. The big news in that segregated town was that KU’s basketball team had landed the over seven-foot-tall, and Black, Wilt Chamberlain. The Supreme Court’s school integration ruling had just been handed down in the spring of 1954—things were changing.

I tell this story as a reminder that people can change. Robert Byrd went from a rabid racist to an advocate of civil rights. He had deeper feelings to overcome than I did. I don’t know if Byrd would have changed if the political realities had not changed, had there been no Supreme Court ruling on school segregation, and had southern Democratic senators continued to control the U.S. Senate. And I don’t know how long it would have taken me to change, had it not been for Arch Rich.

In August, 1964, news came that American ships had been attacked by North Vietnam torpedo boats. Vengefully, I was in favor of bombing North Vietnam. After I learned the attack was a hoax to justify bombing North Vietnam, I became active in anti-war activities.

Robert Byrd voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave Lyndon Johnson the permission he needed to escalate the war. Recently, Byrd said that vote was one of his biggest mistakes. He opposed the invasion of Iraq for the same reasons he wished he had not voted for the Vietnam War. Byrd has also apologized for his racism.

Near the end of his life, after a political career of supporting the coal industry, Byrd expressed misgivings about mountain top removal strip mining.

Byrd had denounced Judge Charles Haden, for his 1999 ruling against mountain top removal valley fills. But in May of 2009 Byrd said that “…. The industry of coal must also respect the land that yields the coal, as well as the people who live on the land. If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated.”

In November, 2009, Byrd said that “The practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. It is not a widespread method of mining, with its use confined to only three states. Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens.

“In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment …The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals.

“West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress.

“Some have even suggested that coal state representatives in Washington should block any advancement of national health care reform legislation until the coal industry’s demands are met by the EPA. I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible.  It is a non-starter, and puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible light.

“To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.”

[1]Three term Governor Arch Moore was convicted of lying and stealing and sentenced to prison.

[2] Governor Wally Barron was convicted of bribery when he bribed the head juror in Barron’s bribery trial.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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